Drawn from Gerald Sittser’s Water from a Deep Well. Part one is here.
Sittser uses STRUGGLE as the key word to describe the spirituality of the desert saints but it was a struggle related to the battle between flesh and spirit. Paul had something to say about this in Galatians:
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” (Galatians 5:16–17 ESV)
Following are reflections by Sittser on the desert saints with regards to their struggle against the temptations of the flesh:
It was the battle for the soul that mattered most to them. The desert saints believed that the Christian life requires struggle against the darkness that resides in the heart, epitomized by the egoism that runs in every human being. Only by facing that darkness will we find true life and freedom. 83
Evagrius describing the problem of egoism, “It is not in our power,” he wrote, “to determine whether we are disturbed by these thoughts, but it is up to us to decide if they are to linger within us or not and whether or not they are to stir up our passions.” 84
According to Evagrius, gluttony consists of obsession with food, whether or not we actually eat too much of it. Vainglory tempts us to angle for attention and honor, regardless of how it can be attained. Pride causes us to claim credit for our virtues and successes rather than acknowledge our indebtedness to others and to God. 84
With regard to temptations, Evagrius said that thoughts toward sin cannot be overcome by simply resisting them. They must be replaced by positive virtues—gratitude instead of gluttony, humility in the place of pride and especially love. 85
One monk even carried a stone in his mouth for three years to overcome the temptation of gossip and frivolous talk. 86
For Abba Abbas, spiritual leaders were not to impose their own will on disciples, as if they were the superior; instead they were to offer suggestions, provide encouragement, impart the wisdom of the desert and, above all, set an example. 87
Sittser concludes his chapter on the value of the desert experience for us today:
The desert will also enable us to see how unfriendly modern culture is to the spiritual life. It seduces us into being too busy, too ambitious and too self-indulgent. We never seem to be satisfied; we always want more. 94
Abba Antony once said, “The man who abides in solitude and is quiet, is delivered from fighting three battles—those of hearing, speech and sight. Then he will have but one battle to fight—the battle of the heart.” 94
The desert will force us to hold our appetites in check, to resist the temptations of the devil and to seek the face of God. 94
Sittser suggests the following exercise. After reading Luke 4:1-13, identify an appetite that seems to be dominating your life. Commit yourself to fasting from the appetite you have identified, for a period of time and in place of the appetite, memorize an appropriate passage and pray for areas of the world that lack what you so desperately crave. 95
This chapter stirs up all kinds of questions for me. But on the topic of the desert:
What (if anything) can replace the desert experience for us today? Beyond going to a literal desert (which I personally find attractive), what alternatives exist for us today? What has worked for you?
More from Gerald Sittser’s Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries. Today, from his chapter three which focuses on the saints who lived in the 4th and 5th centuries and lived in Egypt, Palestine and Syria.
Struggle is the key word that identifies these desert saints according to Sittser. A key Pauline passage on struggle is found in 1 Corinthians
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:24–27 ESV)
Now from Sittser
They believed that struggle is normal, necessary and even healthy in the spiritual life. The fallenness of the world imposes it (e.g., physical sickness, mental anguish, death of a loved one), discipleship requires it (e.g., self-sacrifice) and believers must choose to face it. We therefore cannot escape struggle, nor should we try. Rather, we should embrace it as one aspect of our calling to discipleship, for the goal of life in this world is not ease, prosperity and success but intimacy with God, maturity of character, and influence in the world. Struggle proves that we are taking the Christian faith seriously. 74
Regarding the desert saints,
“However crazy, they deserve our admiration, for they dared to take a stand against the compromised Christianity of their day.” 79
They deeply respected the example of Jesus.
“‘The incarnation, in their minds was not intended to spare them from suffering but to inspire them to choose suffering because through the incarnation suffering had become redemptive. “The more profound our personal misery,” John Chryssavgis writes, “the more abundant God’s eternal mercy. The deeper the abyss of our human corruption, the greater the grace of heavenly compassion. The more involved our exposure to the way of the cross, the more intense our experience of the light of the resurrection.”’ 79
Why the desert?
The desert saints believed that the desert itself is a fitting place to engage in this struggle, for it forces us to face our weaknesses squarely, strips away illusion and pretension, and enables us to recognize our absolute need for God. 81
The desert is barren, stark and lonely, thus symbolizing a life that is stripped of distractions, possessions and pleasures. It is a place of extremes—frigid cold at night, unbearable heat during the day, endless sand and rock, dangerous animals, utter emptiness. There are no provisions to meet physical needs, no conveniences to make life run more smoothly, no friendships to dull the edge of loneliness, no settlements to welcome hungry, thirsty travelers. 82
The desert saints chose to live in the desert to reclaim a faith that had become too easy and convenient. 82
Part two tomorrow
Grace is one of the things we should pray for, says Yancey in his book Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference. Enjoy these words from page 280.
Grace descends as the gentle rain from heaven. It does not divide, does not rank. It floats like a cloud high in the sky, and the thirsty pray for it as desert nomads pray for rain.
Prayer for grace offers the chance for a deep healing, or at least a way to cope with what cannot be fixed.
NOTE: This is an updated post from a couple of years ago.
To be left alone or to be in community?
Hmmm, if I am honest, I too often prefer to be alone than in community. What does that say about my view of spirituality and of the character of God?
Here are some thoughts coming out of Psalm 133 in which the Psalmist clearly says that it is good and pleasant to be in community, to dwell together in unity! Jesus had a few things about this in John 13 and 17!
The kind of community described in Psalm 133 is something attractive, something that most of us (including myself) long for.
First of all, it is GOOD (tov). Think God said something about it not being good to be alone from the beginning! So, it should not surprsise me to think that he thinks it is good to be together.
But community/unity is also delightful or it is pleasant. A quick search on na’im which is the Hebrew word, gives the picture that the delight of community should be similar to the joy we have in our relationship with God when we praise Him, the delight that comes with compliments, the pleasure that wisdom and knowledge brings to our heart.
Two images–like oil and like the dew. Eugene Peterson in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction suggests that the oil communicates a “sense of warm priestly relationship. “
With this imagery, we see God’s anointing of one another–we recognize that God is (equally) at work in my brother or sister’s life. I recognize and value what God is doing in my brother and understand that this may mean speaking the truth in love to one another.
What extravagance to see oil flowing down—community as rich, sweet and fragrant. It is natural that we honor our brother/sister and rejoice when they rejoice!
Peterson suggests that dew brings an imagery of a “sense of freshness and expectant newness.” Should community not bring a thirst quenching for the soul? It is like water on hot day or rain after a drought or the hot season. This image of community provides the promise of better things to come, of blessings!
What creates community? Colossians seems to bring unity and community together well in Col 3:14 “love is what binds us all together in perfect harmony.” Yep, back to love and 1 Cor 13!
What prevents community from forming?
- Seeing others as competitors
- Seeing others as problems to fix
- Using others as a means to make me or the organization successful
What to do?
- Stop labeling others
- Stop presuming to know why people do what they do
- Take each person seriously
- Learn to trust one another other
- Depend on one other
- Be compassionate with and towards others
- Rejoice with others.
Peterson quotes Bonhoeffer,
“The Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother . . . as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word . . . Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.” Cost of Discipleship
So, if I choose solitude over community, can I understand myself? how growth occurs? what is really important to God? learn how deceived I am about my own spirituality.
What can we do to build into community around us today?
NOTE: Following is an update on a previous post.
Does holiness provide refuge or bring condemnation? Gary Thomas in The Beautiful Fight says, “A holy man or woman is a spiritual force, a “God oasis,” in a world that needs spiritually strong people.”
The world needs holy men and women because it needs people transformed by God.
Isaiah 32:2 says, “Each man will be like a shelter from the wind and a refuge from the storm, like streams in the desert and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land.” Thomas writes the following:
A holy man or woman is a spiritual force, a “God oasis,” in a world that needs spiritually strong people. When the winds of turmoil hit, such people become shelters; their faith provides a covering for all. By their words and actions, by the ways they listen and use their eyes to love instead of lust, to honor instead of hate, to build up instead of tear down, holy women and men are like streams of water in the desert, affirming what God values most. When the heat of temptation threatens to tear this world apart, godly men and women become like the shadow of a great rock. These God oases carry Christ to the hurting, to the ignorant, to those in need. They will be sought out–and they will have something to say. 48
NOTE: Following is an update on a previous post.
Double-mindedness says Kierkegaard is to will the good
for the sake of reward
out of fear of punishment. Purity of Heart
He reminds us that the reward may be present or may be absent when we seek the good. We are to walk with only the good before our eyes (as opposed to the reward drawing us along).
Reminds me of Hebrews 11:6, Those who approach God “must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”
The God of the Bible is good. He loves to bless and give good gifts to his children. God is not my harsh earthly father who reluctantly rewarded. Who in the middle of a reward made you feel that your good was not good enough. Providing a drink but leaving you more thirsty than ever.
When we believe that we serve a God who rewards those who seek him we have the possibility of freedom and joy in life.
We do not serve in order to win God’s approval or love! May it never be!!
God’s fundamental character is that he loves to bless and reward those who seek him. Remember our own seeking of God is only possible because He took the initiative (1 Jn 4).
And yet . . . if I am serving (or seeking the good to use Kierkegaard’s words), for the sake of the reward, then something may be wrong.
Is God enough without any of his gifts?
What about the sheer joy of enjoying God while I run the race? Remember, “when I run, I experience his pleasure.”
Hebrews talks about the men and women of faith who kept living by faith and in obedience even though they did not receive any reward in this life–they were looking ahead to what would come (Heb 11:13-16, 35, 39, 40). Their heavenly rewards certainly exceeded any of the pleasures that sin or compromise might have brought to them.
I wonder if what kept them going was not the thought of the reward in and of itself but thoughts of the goodness, beauty and generosity of the rewarder.
Rewards do come for those who have been faithful. But, Lord, let me not become double-minded by willing good for the sake of the reward. You are enough!
After hearing a sermon about money this money, I decided to do a re-post from 2007.
I once made the mistake of calling friends frugal when they intentionally reducing the amount of food they served our group in order to save money. I think our friends did not understand the cultural value of celebration around a meal and how generosity would have communicated so much love.
Our friends were insulted and thought I was calling them stingy. Thanks to my wife, we managed to work it out. And, perhaps, providing them with a gift of a simple ride to the airport helped as well.
Mark Buchanan’s eloquent words in The Rest of God express my heart, “Generous people generate things.” He continues on pages 83-84:
And, consequently, their worlds are more varied, surprising, colorful, fruitful.They’re richer. More abounds with them, and yet they have a greater thirst and deeper capacity to take it all in. The world delights the generous but seldom overwhelms them.
Not so the stingy. Stinginess is parasitic, it chews life up and spits out bones. The stingy end up losing what they try so desperately to hold. . . Hoarding is only wasting. Keeping turns into losing. And so the world of the stingy shrinks. . . . Because they are convinced there isn’t enough, there never is.
This all relates to Sabbath-keeping. Generous people have more time. That’s the irony: those who sanctify time and who give time away–who treat time as gift and not possession–have time in abundance. Contrariwise, those who guard every minute, resent every interruption, ration every moment, never have enough. They’re always late, always behind, always scrambling, always driven. . . .
I don’t think my friends were stingy when I called them frugal. It was clearly a cultural misunderstanding. But, I guess in the matter we were discussing, I don’t think they were being generous either. My daughter, a server at a local restaurant, once picked up the bill for three friends who came in to eat a few weeks ago. She paid the full amount and received no discount or complimentary meal for them. She felt like being generous. Why? Well, according to my friend, she said that she had learned it from her dad. Wow, what a compliment! By the way, she did get the biggest tip of her young career from the friends!
Buchanan says, “The taproot of generosity is spiritual”, and cites the example of the Macedonians in 2 Corinthians 8:5. He makes the following suggestion:
Give yourself first to God. Stop, now, and give yourself–your breath, your health or sickness, your thoughts, your intents, all of who you are–to him. And your time, that too. Acknowledge that every moment you receive is God’s sheer gift. Resolve never to turn it into possession. What you receive as gift you must be willing to impart as gift. Invite God to direct your paths, to lead you in the way everlasting; be open to holy interruption, divine appointment, Spirit ambush (and ask God to know the difference). Many are the plans in a man’s heart,” Proverbs says, “but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails” (Proverbs 19:21). Surrender to his purpose with gladness. Vow not to resist or resent it.
Give yourself first to God.
Now the hard thing: give yourself to others. Enter this day with a deep resolve to actually spend time, even at times seemingly to squander it, for the sake of purposes beyond your own–indeed that occasionally subvert your own (remember the good Samaritan?). That person you think is a such a bore but who always wants to talk with you: Why not really listen to him? Why not give him, not just your time, but yourself–your attention, your affection, the gift of your curiosity and inquisitiveness?
In God’s economy, to redeem time, you might just have to waste some.
Try this for a week, giving of yourself first to God and then to others. Be generous with time.
See if your world isn’t larger by this time next week.
May I practice generosity this week! I need to begin by letting go of . . . and giving . . .
“Pure joy is found in a life of growth, not in a life of ease,” writes Douglas D. Webster in Finding Spiritual Direction. Tough words to live by in a world that values comfort above else.
Webster uses a study of the book of James to provide a basis for the essential practices of anyone wanting to provide spiritual direction to others who seek to grow in maturity. He sees spiritual directors as “physicians of the soul” (14), as “parents” (16) and as “farmers who love the land and understand their work.” 171
Webster also talks about prayer, “Prayer sustains the resistance of the soul against an undertow of evil . . . Prayer does not tidy up life and arrange it in labeled folders. It focuses and intensifies life. Prayer orients our thinking, directs our actions and prepares us for God’s work.” 40
So, here is the question: When given an option, do you choose a life of growth or a life of ease? If you choose a life of growth, you should also understand that growth usually requires that we move through resistance as we encounter suffering and hardship. At the end of growth lies joy as Webster says above.
From Letters on Spiritual Direction by Susan Muto, a book of “imaginative” letters that St. John wrote to his directee Dona Ana Penalosa.
John writes about the danger of placing ourselves under the spiritual care of the wrong person and writes sobering comments about who should NOT be a spiritual director:
One is perhaps highly educated but inexperienced, or one full of clever answers but indiscreet, not a listener but a controller, not a humble person but one proud of being so accomplished, not an experienced guide in spiritual matters but a counselor mainly trained in psychological techniques and personality analysis. 90
I want to continue my progress in dealing with the “veil of temporal detachments” (which Ana says, “hinder longing for transcendence 23) and natural affections that block the soul from union with God. (21, 65) Yet, I realize how easily I fall back into old habits and especially the big three: appetites for power, pleasure and possessions. A sad and sobering reminder to me was the statement made by John about many people, “Called for much more, they settle for much less.” 72
I must remember as John says, “Your delight in him is the delight he feels in you.” 51
We need to be available to people as they feel an empty life apart from God, “a thirst that is unquenchable, a hunger that is never satisfied.” 67
God is always the initiator, “It is humbling to realize that we could neither raise our eyes to the divine light nor desire it if God were not turning our eyes in the right direction.” 72
Storytelling is an old form of communication. But it is not just for oral cultures. Even our written cultures connect with storytelling.
In Mark Miller’s Experiential Storytelling: (Re)Discovering Narrative to Communicate God’s Message, Miller is attempting to motivate and model this old communication form so that the church can reach today’s postmodern generation. He writes because he believes there is much at stake for the church. Listen to Miller,
“I believe in the church. Christ died for it, and the Spirit moves it. Further, it is the primary instrument God has chosen to use on earth. If that is not a reason to be more creative in our communication, then I am at a complete loss. . .I also hope that you can be a part of creating a culture of creativity in your church that will eliminate the restraints on innovation.” 75
When we go beyond the Scriptures to hear God, we face significant dangers.
“Supernatural knowledge that reaches the intellect by the exterior bodily senses” must not be relied upon says St. John of the Cross. Why says John? Because we can be easily deceived by counterfeits from the devil.
“Individuals who esteem these apprehensions are in serious error and extreme danger of being deceived.” (AMC 2:11:3) He says false visions and communications from the devil “cause in the spirit agitation, or dryness, or vanity, or presumption.”
On the other hand, communications from God, “penetrate the soul, move the will to love, and leave their effect within. As Muto says, God’s self-communications …penetrate the soul like fragrant oil softens dry, cracked skin.” (58)
In our longing for these sensory communications we are vulnerable. We must detach ourselves from desires for these special communication. As Muto says, “If good, their effects will show up anyway; if bad, they will be eliminated from the start.”(60)
A good reminder to not seek out special experiences with God or from God. I do need to spend time listening rather than always talking but when I start hearing voices, it is time to be on the alert!
“I cannot give if I do not receive. In giving, I am also able to receive.”
In John 4, Jesus initiates a discussion with a Samaritan woman with “Give me a drink” even though he knows that the woman needs a drink from him more than he needs the drink he is requesting.
The Samaritan woman had to discover her own neediness and drink from the living waters before she could give a drink to others.
I have too often tried to help others with a drink when I myself have not allowed Jesus to fill me with His living water.
Many people in the world today are thirsty and hungry and yet they are not aware of their thirst. Activities, busyness and self-medication (alcohol, drugs, sports, etc) serve to mask the thirst that exists. People refuse to admit their restless desire for God and “repress the awareness of it” because they are “unable to bear the terrible craving for God that eats away at their hearts.” (Adrian van Kaam)
I need to “be attentive to that kind of thirst of Jesus in my fellow men that I can relieve best because of the person I am.” I need not pretend or try to be someone that I am not. Do I fail to see people in need and do I lack compassion because I have been unable or unwilling to receive from Jesus. Unless I receive from Him, I have nothing to give.
Only in recent years have I paid attention to notice my own thirst. In doing so, I am much more aware of the thirst of others.
Attachments and affections may prevent me from receiving His love. It is only when I give these attachments to Jesus that I am able to give my whole self to Him and receive His love. Van Kaam says, “To live a spiritual life is to excel in the art of receiving without fear or withholding.”
I am comforted that the Lord did not give up on the Samaritan woman and He has not given up on me. This is grace. In the same way, His grace enables me to persevere with those who initially reject, are hardened or even fearful of that which I am offering to give to them—new life in Jesus.
Van Kaam is helpful here. “The lie of self reliance never covers up the hollowness that gnaws at the core of our existence.” It requires the work of the grace of God to enable a person to see in their own blindness.
For many of us, we tend to confuse love with emotions. But if the emotions are not there, is it still possible to love? For Therese of Liseux, the answer is yes!
Despite receiving no consolations from her relationship with God in the last years of her life, Therese continued to pursue and love God during her “dark night.” Ahern states, loving God for Therese was not to be confused with an “emotional experience”. 51
Her love for God and His love for her was the “central reality of Therese’s life”, says Ahern He later says, “The whole purpose of her earthly life was to love God and make Him loved.”
She asked her friend Maurice to pray the following for her: “I ask you to set my sister on fire with Your Spirit of Love, and to grant her the grace of making You deeply loved.” Therese understood that because God had drawn her to His love, it was natural that she herself would draw others to love Him.
I love the prayer she sent Maurice “I ask of you Jesus, a heart that loves you, a heart that cannot be conquered, always ready for battle after each tempest, a heart that is free, never seduced, a heart that is straight and never walks on crooked paths.”
What do you do when you have a compassion deficit?
Consider the empathy and compassion of Jesus and ask God to help us feel the same compassion He feels when we see others in need. Susan Muto says that reception of mercy generates compassion for others; compassion “will flow from the sacred heart of Jesus.”
Being too busy leads to hurry sickness.
If you are too busy, you will likely need to always be in a hurry to get everything done. Unless we are careful, this will lead to “hurry sickness.”
In order to be spiritually healthy, John Ortberg, in his book, The Life You’ve Always Wanted to Live writes, “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life. There is nothing else.” Ortberg says, “Hurry is not just a disordered schedule. Hurry is a disordered heart.” Reminds me of Ordering Your Private World by Gordon McDonald.
Ortberg gives 6 signs of hurry sickness.
- Constantly speeding up daily activities
- An inability to love
- Sunset fatigue
What will you do today to eliminate hurry sickness from your life?
According to Soren Kierkegaard, purity of heart is to will one thing–God. He closes his book, Purity of Heart, with a prayer. Here is part of that prayer:
Father in Heaven! What is a man without Thee!
What is all that he knows, vast accumulation though it be,
but a chipped fragment if he does not know Thee!
What is all his striving, could it even encompass the world,
but a half-finished work if he does not know Thee:
Thee the One, who art one thing and who art all!
So may Thou give to the intellect, wisdom to comprehend that one thing;
to the heart, sincerity to receive this understanding;
to the will, purity that wills only one thing.
In prosperity may Thou grant perseverance to will one thing;
amid distractions, collectedness to will one thing;
in suffering, patience to will one thing .
Oh, Thou that giveth both the beginning and the completion,
may Thou early, at the dawn of the day,
give to the young man the resolution to will one thing.
As the day wanes, may
Thou give give to the old man a renewed remembrance of his first resolution,
that the first may be like the last,
the last like the first in possession of a life that has willed only one thing.
“Central to the Christian experience is the art of questioning God,” says Rob Bell in Velvet Elvis. Bell’s Nooma short videos are some of the best around (I need to order a few of the more recent ones) and his Sex God was outstanding. So, I picked up Velvet Elvis a few weeks ago and decided to read it while on vacation. Bell continues his discussion about questioning God:
Not beligerent, arrogant questions that have no respect for our maker, but naked, honest, vulnerable, raw questions, arising out of the awe that comes from engaging the living God.
This type of questioning frees us. Frees us from having to have it all figured out. Frees us from having answers to everything. Frees us from always having to be right. It allows us to have moments when we come to the end of our ability to comprehend. Moments when the silence is enough. 31
“No fixing, no saving, no advising, no setting each other straight.”
From Parker Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness
Finished up Gary Moon’s Apprenticeship with Jesus: Learning to Live Like the Master. He has exercises at the end of each chapter and it is designed to be done in 30 days. I read through it but did not do all the exercises. Would be a useful tool to use with someone else. I enjoyed Moon’s concluding remarks. (bold print is mine). Moon is quite a fan of Dallas Willard and after reading his book, I want to go back and re-read some of Willard’s books.
The practice of an apprenticeship with Jesus means waking up each morning with the primary purpose of being with Christ while learning to be like him. It is learning to live more and more moments in awareness of the Trinitarian reality the kingdom of God all around.
But the main thing is not what to do but what not to do. We should not make entering into apprenticeship with Jesus complicated. . . how does a person become an apprentice of Jesus? By doing the next right thing with him, until eventually you observe him doing the next right thing through you.
Sloth is the failure to attend to our spiritual lives. Acedia is spiritual listlessness or laziness, the antithesis of worship. It is a refusal to respond to our opportunities for growth, service or sacrifice. Antidote: zeal and diligence. Four expressions of sloth:
- Laziness—neglect of our responsibilities. Antidote: discipline, commitment, ambition, willingness
- Indifference—lack of concern about injustice, apathy. Antidote: concern, enthusiasm, interest passion or involvement.
- Cowardice—uses the risk of something painful or unpleasant as an excuse to refuse to do what is necessary. Antidote: courage, boldness, conviction.
- Sadness—morbidity or despair. A sadness that savors and takes pleasure in sadness. Antidote: seeking hope, optimism and joy.